This article appears in July/August 2015 Omaha Home.
Kathryn Piller’s century-old house on Dodge Street doesn’t scream Prairie School, but it does quietly carry many of the features of that school of design. The strong horizontal lines; an attention to fine craftsmanship in the walnut woodwork.
Some of the telling features are hidden, though, she says. Over the years, the house has been through a few ill-conceived updates. Piller says she plans to keep renovating to bring the home more in line with the Prairie School aesthetic.
“I want to go back to the original Prairie [School] look as much as possible,” she says. “But all that isn’t cheap.”
Prairie School architecture is most associated with the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. But while he is probably the most famous American architect of the time, he was actually one of numerous architects in this country shooting to create a distinctly American design at the end of the 19th century.
To some extent, their work was a reaction to the Greek and Roman classicism used in nearly every structure for the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. This architecture, Wright and his contemporaries believed, said nothing of this land in this time. It was all just an echo of a distant time in a distant place.
Wright and the other Prairie School architects promoted the idea of “organic architecture,” meaning, in essence, that the structure should look as if it was a natural part of the landscape it inhabits.
There is very little that is vertical in the American prairie. The dominant lines are horizontal. The colors are muted grass and wood tones. A Prairie School structure becomes part of its Midwestern surroundings.
Piller’s home near 50th and Dodge streets was built in 1916, not long before Prairie School design began to fall from favor. It’s generally believed that the tumult of World War I caused homebuilders’ attitudeS to turn more conservative.
In Nebraska, the vast majority of homes built at the time were already very conservative. It was not Prairie School work that dominates the landscape, but rather the simple “Prairie Box.”
While Chicago—the birthplace of the design philosophy—brags many homes designed by Wright himself, there are no known Wright-directed projects in Omaha. Indeed, the only structure designed by Wright in Nebraska is in on the other side of the state in McCook. For Wright and Prairie School aficionados, though, the five-hour drive to see the extraordinary Harvey P. Sutton house is well worth the hassle.